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CGI vs. Photography – The Great Image Debate

As photographers we are now being faced with a new type of image revolution. It’s one that is so serious it could change the way that images are created, bought and sold. So what is better a real or CGI image?

Photo by Shaun White

Photo by Shaun White

This new revolution threatens the very professional photographic industry that each of us aspire to be a part of.

We have faced this before though, right?

Being an old school photographer, back in my University days I trained in stock photography.

Many of you reading this may be completely unfamiliar with such a term as stock, or you’ll immediately think of the many websites that offer free stock photographs!

One of my first color images that I processed in a darkroom.

One of my first color images that I processed in a darkroom.

Stock photography is a term used for film and the stock chemicals that are involved in the processing of photographs. Of course, since the inception of the digital age, Photoshop has completely replaced all of the stock processes that take place within the legendary darkroom. At the time of this transition/revolution, many photographers would debate over which they deemed to be better, digital or stock? At that time, some 15 years ago, I hate to admit it, but I was an advocate of stock processes. Nevertheless, I certainly wasn’t alone.

Ansel Adams is perhaps the most famous photographer in history. He pioneered the dark room techniques that people would go on to use for the next 80 years

Ansel Adams is perhaps the most famous photographer in history. He pioneered the dark room techniques that people would go on to use for the next 80 years.

I had mastered the art of processing color film, which unlike black and white would have to take place in complete and utter darkness, as the slightest particle of light could ruin an entire batch of film, it goes without saying that this film was expensive. Stock photography was deemed an art form. There you were; walking in the footsteps of Ansel Adams and Robert Capra!  One of the many beauties of stock photography was that you never knew what the quality of your images would be until you came out of the darkroom; it was exciting, smelly and fun!

That's my first model, my identical twin brother, I had to buy him lunch just so I could take this photos, I remember him asking if he could see them after the shoot as digital cameras were starting to step into the fray, he had to wait 2 weeks.

That’s my first model, my identical twin brother. I had to buy him lunch just so I could take this photo! I remember him asking if he could see them after the shoot as digital cameras were starting to step into the fray, unfortunately he had to wait 2 weeks.

But as the digital processes slowly started to overtake the old school ways, the prices really began to increase, as less and less photographers coming out of college were willing to part with $10 for a roll of film that contained 30 shots, all of which you had to make damn sure that the set up was perfect.

This is one of the very first photographs that I took, I admit its a little dark, but after the whole process of loading the film, mixing the chemicals in the dark room, I was really pleased with this photograph and still am today.

This is one of the very first photographs that I took, I admit its a little dark, but after the whole process of loading the film, mixing the chemicals in the dark room, I was really pleased with this photograph and still am today.

Soon after much deliberation, and the fact that I could no longer buy photographic paper from my local processing shop, I learned to give in to this passing phase of computerized post-production, because apart from the initial cost of a DSLR (my first one cost $3000), I quickly learned that photography is a skill and an art form, no matter the processes involved.

Enter The New Debate…

Moores Law, which states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months, is a phenomena that has remained since the late 1940’s. The phrase was coined by a computer scientist that noticed a repeating pattern in the number of transistors that get added to microchips. But, what does this have to do with photography?

Even in the software's logo they make no mistake what industry they're trying to take over

Even in the software’s logo they make no mistake what industry they’re trying to take over

Enter Keyshot

Many of you with design backgrounds might have heard about the awesome design software Keyshot. The software started as a simple design platform that enabled the CGI’ers of the world to produce CGI (Computer Generated Images) characters for live action films and television shows. But due to the rate that computing power doubles and has increased since the 40’s we are now at the stage where images are starting to look real. I mean, really real!

Keyshot is a highly powerful software tool that is making the fake almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Keyshot is a highly powerful software tool that is making the fake almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

But like anything, the more powerful a software platform gets, the more external industries want to get involved! Keyshot is now being used by CAD designers all over the world to replicate products and people within their advertising films and posters with the aim to make CGI better than real photographs.

This is worrying many photographers. Certainly not the amateur Sunday afternoon in the park photographer, but the ones right at the top, at the cutting edge of photography, where there are maybe ten photographers that fight for that $1 million brief – these people are scared, but what is better a real or CGI image?

The level of detail, combined with the lack of finger prints, hair and dust makes the CGI master of Keyshot a rather scary competitor for the photographer.

The level of detail, combined with the lack of finger prints, hair and dust makes the CGI master of Keyshot a rather scary competitor for the photographer.

But which produce a better image??

The briefs from the world’s top advertising agencies are getting far more demanding, and in the fray competing with the photographers, are these CGI designers; They can answer the brief in half the time of a photographer, if the final image requires changes it can be done in seconds, and these designers price tags are almost half the amount of the photographers.

The images are only going to get better and better. Currently I don’t think that a computer generated image looks better, but then these designers are being used so often, that it’s difficult to even tell at a glance if the people within a photograph are even real.

What would you say if you knew that this photograph wasn't a real person? Well guess what, she isn't real..

What would you say if you knew that this photograph wasn’t a real person? Well guess what, she isn’t real..

I have to admit that Keyshot is a very impressive item of software that is certainly both creative and inspiring. My personal thoughts on this new digital image revolution are that it will only really affect the top tier of photographers.

People want to see the real the thing, however Photoshop is certainly getting used more and more. Are we simply getting to a stage where Photoshop will one day have a feature to add people into the image, where you can position them however you like?

Unlike the stock vs digital debate, the CGI vs photography issue has one less factor that will affect it; “what’s that” I hear you say?

Money. I imagine that some of “the would be” future photographers prefer to stay in their rooms and generate a load of people onto a screen, move them around with the rule of thirds, set up different lighting techniques, a fake location backdrop and ta da! An awesome photograph that’s fake, but looks real.

However, there’s also going to be the other photographers, that for them, it’s all about the process. Time isn’t a factor and spending the money on such shoots, is all part of the joy that is photography! Getting out on location, casting models. For me, and many of my other photographer friends, that is what makes photography so amazing. Digital replaced stock because it was cheaper; sure, the darkroom was replaced with a computer screen, but the processes are almost the same:

  1. Buying the best kit
  2. Getting your head around it by reading the manual
  3. Hunting for the perfect location
  4. Waiting for that perfect shot
  5. Building the set from a simple drawing that you did off the back of a napkin

This is what makes photography so romantic for many.

This is a real photograph. But how long until we see this type of image completely replicated, judging by the quality of the images above, not long.

This is a real photograph. But how long until we see this type of image completely replicated? Judging by the quality of the images above, not long.

But is saving time far more important? Working with people can be a drag at times? As many of us know, not all models are great to work with. Let’s continue the debate below! Leave your comments as I’d love to hear the thoughts from the community.

Robert Bradley

Robert is a surrealist visual artist, photographer and journalist. Many of his photographs are exhibited throughout the world in private and corporate collections.

  • John English

    thank you for this very interesting post. this is certainly something that deserves some though on. while as you say this is something that is only likely to affect the top tier of photographers yet i wound wonder how long before it begins to affect the lower levels down to even the hobbyist photographer. people are lazy and this is something that will only grow and become more accepted over time, especially if it remains cheap. it gives me ill feeling just thinking about it

  • John Ketts

    Not sure I’m happy about this affecting photography.. but then I guess what other way could it possibly go?

  • Glenn

    I remember the movie Simone with Al Pacino Directed by Kiwi Director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) “Our ability to manufacture fraud has been superseded by our ability to detect it..”……I believe CGI should be called digital art and photography …well photography..

  • John Smith

    Wow

  • I have a Client that wants CGI quality at the price of photography. CGI is better but more expensive. Photographers take note- lean CGI

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